Brown Venture Prize finalists vie for $50K for big ideas

All eyes are on the prize — and the entrepreneurial process — in this annual Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship competition among Brown’s most promising student ventures.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On a Tuesday evening early in March, Brown senior Saron Mechale stands before a group of fellow student entrepreneurs and staff from the University’s Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship. She’s practicing her pitch for goTeff, a venture she founded with her brother that sources and sells cereal products made from teff, a highly nutritious grain, and then reinvests part of the profits with the Ethiopian farmers who grow it.

The pressure is on. In 24 hours, she’ll make the same 5-minute pitch to the Brown alumni entrepreneurs and business leaders lined up as judges for this year’s Brown Venture Prize pitch competition. The winner of the annual competition will receive not only a $25,000 award to accelerate and scale their idea, but also introductions to and expert mentorship from leaders in the Brown entrepreneurial community and beyond.

The pitch rehearsal — and the Venture Prize itself — reflect Brown’s overall approach to entrepreneurship, says Danny Warshay, executive director of the Nelson Center.

“The process of preparing for the Venture Prize competition is not only about whether you win the money, but about continuing to hone and polish your thinking about your venture,” Warshay said. “At Brown, when we teach entrepreneurship, we teach a process. Doing the work that it requires to submit a plan, to practice your pitch and get feedback, is worthwhile in so many ways.”

When Mechale and her brother finish their presentation, it’s time for feedback. The pitch feels polished but it’s running a bit long, and there’s some back and forth about how to better weave the social impact of the business into the venture’s story.

“Give us some more glue to keep the narrative going,” suggests Jason Harry, an associate professor of the practice at the School of Engineering and director of the Nelson Center’s Breakthrough Lab.

There’s also some very practical presentation advice. Liz Malone, the center’s programs manager, suggests facing the screen during a short promotional video included in the pitch, rather than looking out at the audience.

“You want it to feel like you are watching it with them,” Malone says.

GoTeff is one of eight Brown student ventures selected from a pool of 26 applicants to compete for this year’s prize, which is funded by Brown alumni Neil Parikh and Luke Sherwin, co-founders of the mattress company Casper. Second and third place winners receive $15,000 and $10,000, respectively. Students are encouraged to apply in teams that include at least one current Brown student — undergraduate or graduate — as a founder.

The eight finalists represent advanced student ventures across a broad range of sectors — from a company developing a type of mesh that removes debris from blood, reducing stroke risk, to an on-demand mobile charging service for electric vehicles. Many have worked for years to develop ideas with the help of the Nelson Center’s array of venture support programs.

For Mechale and goTeff, the Venture Prize competition pitch is the next step in their entrepreneurial journey, which started when she conceived the idea for her startup in Warshay’s course, “The Entrepreneurial Process.” Since then, she has received Explore and Expand grants from the Nelson Center and enrolled in Lean Launchpad, a hands-on Brown Wintersession course on how to build a startup. Last summer, goTeff was also accepted to Breakthrough Lab, the center’s intensive eight-week accelerator program.

All of these efforts culminated when goTeff was selected as a finalist for the Hult Prize, a highly competitive international social enterprise competition for student entrepreneurs.

“The Nelson Center is a great support system,” Mechale said. “They’ve helped keep me inspired and motivated and have given me a wide network to tap into. They also encourage you and push you to think about the impact your venture could have in ways other than making a profit.”

That focus on social impact is a defining characteristic of entrepreneurship at Brown, Warshay says. Though not all student ventures focus on social issues, Brown’s approach to entrepreneurship — a process focused on developing innovative solutions to pressing challenges — translates well to budding nonprofits or for-profits that also have a social bent.

“The way we design entrepreneurship at Brown is as a structured process for solving problems,” Warshay said. “It may result in a business, but it is not a business incubator. It’s more expansive than that. It’s a method students can apply no matter what field they ultimately go into.”

Another venture competing for this year’s prize is Formally, a software application that guides displaced people through the labyrinthine process of completing applications for asylum, visas and citizenship in the United States. The group, which comprises two current Brown students and two alumni, vied unsuccessfully for the Venture Prize last year. They spent the following summer in Breakthrough Lab, working with NGOs and immigration lawyers to test and improve the software, an effort they hope will make their case for the prize even stronger this year.

Diane Mutako, a senior computer science concentrator and the team’s head of user testing, credits the Nelson Center and the student entrepreneurial community at Brown for keeping her energized — particularly in maintaining the balance needed to focus on her course work and simultaneously take part in the time-intensive work of launching a venture.

“It’s exciting to be part of a community where there are so many different issues that people are committed to solving and to see how many creative solutions there can be,” Mutako said. “At Brown, it feels really possible and doable to be both an entrepreneur and a student.”

While startups founded at Brown seek funding from multiple sources, the Venture Prize can give them significant momentum toward scalability and sustainability. Last year’s winner, Penta, founded by Class of 2018 graduate Trang Duong, is devoted to repurposing and refitting used American prosthetics for use by landmine victims in Vietnam. Penta is now expanding to other countries with similar needs.

And the learning that happens just by taking part in the competition has helped move all the ventures forward, Warshay says.

“Everyone who competed last year is making good process,” Warshay said. “At the Nelson Center, we describe our work as ‘creating solutions with impact.’ That’s a good shorthand way of describing what all of them are now doing.”

Update: This year’s Venture Prize winner is Formally. Second place went to goTeff, and third place went to EmboNet.

Editor’s Note: The Venture Prize pitch competition takes place on Wednesday, March 6, beginning at 6:30 pm. Tickets are required and space is limited. The 2019 Venture Prize finalists, as described by the teams, include the following:

  • Cress Heath leverages mobile technology to fight addiction.
     
  • EmboNet focuses on developing a double-layered, pocketed mesh designed to securely capture and remove embolic debris from blood, reducing stroke risk and cerebral injury associated with cardiac bypass surgeries.
     
  • Formally empowers applicants and attorneys by making immigration and legal forms easy.
     
  • goTeff is a mission-driven nutrition brand using teff grain — a superfood from Ethiopia, with a vision to provide superior nutrition to US consumers while empowering Ethiopian small-holder farmers.
     
  • H2Ok Innovations uses AI and data analytics to empower communities with cost-saving information that drive decisions ensuring sustainable access to clean drinking water.
     
  • Intus Care provides on-demand in-home care, care coordination, and enrichment for the elderly and disabled. 
     
  • SelectEd is an AI-powered digital platform connecting international students with U.S. educational consultants, streamlining personalized college application assistance.
     
  • Zap Charging provides on-demand charging for electric vehicles, anytime and anywhere.